by Amy Ferrer
Over the last couple of years, you may have noticed that the APA board has become more responsive to issues of public interest, releasing statements or joining coalition letters on issues including tenure and academic freedom, bullying and harassment, and campus carry legislation.
What may not be clear is how those statements and letters come to be. In this post, I’m setting out to change that.
For most of its history, the APA had three paths for taking stances on issues of public interest: (1) policy and position statements, (2) resolutions, and (3) censures.
Policy and Position Statements
Policy and position statements include our statement on nondiscrimination, our statement on graduate student aid offers, and our statement on the role of philosophy programs in higher education. These are initiated by the board of officers, an APA committee, or, occasionally, an outside group such as the Council of Graduate Schools. They are adopted by a majority vote of the board, but they tend to take months or years to develop, and as such they tend to address issues of long term interest rather than attempt to respond to more timely topics.
Resolutions, on the other hand, are member-driven and are provided for in the bylaws of the association. Such resolutions are rare—the last was proposed in 2002 in regard to the war in Iraq—and must receive a majority vote in each of the three divisions to become resolutions of the association. The resolution process takes months, so they, too, are ill suited to timely responses.
Censures are limited to cases of professional rights violations by institutions (not individuals), and these are handled by the Committee on the Defense of Professional Rights of Philosophers (CDPRP).
The CDPRP only takes up cases when the APA member(s) whose rights have allegedly been violated files a complaint with the APA—out of respect for the individuals involved, the CDPRP will not act on the request of a third-party. When a complaint is filed, the CDPRP gathers documentation, reviews the case, and makes recommendations to the board about whether an institution’s actions warrant a censure (the strongest sanction the APA has available) or a formal letter of concern (normally used in cases where there appears to be a violation but the institution refuses to provide information to the CDPRP).
You can see the list of institutions currently under APA censure on our website.
Because the information-gathering process takes months or even years, however, censures are similarly challenging when an issue must be addressed in a timely manner.
Because these three paths were insufficient to respond to time-sensitive concerns, in 2014 the board adopted a new procedure for letters on issues of public interest. This procedure allows the board, in specific circumstances, to act more quickly to speak out on important, time-sensitive issues—expressing the position of the board, rather than of the entire association. You are likely already aware of cases in which the board recently issued such letters. Here are three examples:
- Letter protesting the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s actions regarding Stephen Salaita(November 24, 2014)
- Letter condemning threats to academic freedom in Wisconsin(August 26, 2015)
- Letter regarding firings at Mount St. Mary’s University(February 11, 2016)
We have also privately sent letters to a number of institutions in response to proposed cuts to or closures of philosophy departments.
The board may consider such letters in only limited cases—cases where the issue is directly related to the mission of the APA. Issues in the following categories may be considered for a board letter:
- Academic freedom
- Government funding for the humanities and higher education
- Philosophy departments threatened with closure, merger, severe funding cuts, or similar crises
- Conditions of the professional work of philosophers
But how does the board come to consider such a letter? Simple: someone asks.
Any APA member, committee, or task force, any philosophy department, and any other learned society can request that the APA board consider issuing a letter or signing on to a joint letter/statement with other scholarly societies. The procedure for letters on issues of public interest explains in detail what is required, but it’s pretty straightforward: contact me and provide details on the issue, making a case for why the issue should be taken up by the board, and include draft text of the letter.
Letter requests that fall within the guidelines are normally reviewed by an APA committee, which makes a recommendation about whether the board should take up the request. If the committee supports the request, the letter is then put to the board for a vote. If possible, letter requests are taken up at the next scheduled board meeting, where a simple majority can approve the letter. If there are time constraints that require the board take action before a meeting can be called, the board may attempt an electronic vote on the letter. However, due to legal restrictions on board actions outside a meeting, such votes must be unanimous. It’s a high bar, but it has been done.
Thanks to this new procedure, the board now has a new mechanism for taking stances on issues of public interest without lengthy delays. So the next time you read something in the higher ed press and think, “Hey, the APA should put out a letter on this,” remember this post. Remember how APA board letters come to be and consider requesting that letter yourself.
Amy Ferrer has been Executive Director of the APA since 2012.